What happened to “asking for help”?

In the early days, when a user of my program ran into a problem, he/she just contacted me to ask for help. Resulting in a nice and friendly conversation, where I would ask questions, and the user would provide more detailed information.
Ultimately, in most cases, resulting in a satisfying outcome, either me helping the user use the software, or the user helping me fix a bug. Nice, fruitful, effective …

However, here’s what we’re seeing more and more nowadays, especially for our mobile apps, but it’s becoming more common for our desktop apps too:

A user runs into a problem, and instead of asking for help, immediately jumps to complaining about it in a public place like the App Store, the Android Market, Facebook or Twitter. Just stating the problem… no request for help, no conversation and therefore in most cases: no solution.

No conversation, no solution

Of course, getting bad reviews of your software is annoying. But the real issue here is the lack of conversation. Without a conversation:

  • There is no way to help the user to actually solve his problem, simply because you can’t contact him.
  • There is no way to fix actual bugs in your software, because you can’t learn what the problem is exactly, what might be causing it, how to reproduce it, etc… Making it next to impossible to fix the bug, let alone help the user (and possible other users running into the same bug!).

What’s happening here? And why?

Has the reputation of software companies (or internet companies in general) become so bad that users don’t even bother to ask for help anymore?

Some users at least don’t seem to expect any useful help. Instead:

  • They’re just stating the problem or complaining about it.
    No questions, no request for help, or even an expectation of a fix.

  • They’re addressing other users, asking “Is anyone else having this problem?”
    What’s that about? How is finding other with the same problem going to help you? Why not report the problem to the company directly so that they can actually do something about it? (this one is especially common on public Forums and Facebook).

  • Or this weird one we’re often seeing:
    “Why isn’t it possible to …?” (often followed by something that is possible).
    I don’t get it. How is knowing “why” gonna help you? Don’t you just want us to help you make it possible?

Or has “warning other users about this piece of shit” become more important than actually getting your own problem solved?

Typical “App Store Attitude”. I admire the altruism, but think about it… if you help the software companies actually fix the problem… isn’t that more helpful for other users?

Or is this like, I’ll complain about the problem in public so then “they” will have to listen to me and do something about it.

I can understand and accept this one, but only in cases where it really is a last report to get the company to listen and act. But come on, be fair and at least try the normal support channels first.

Some examples

Here’s some example one-star “reviews” from the Apple App Store and the Android Market. Interestingly, none of these reviews were posted under the user’s real names…

Crashes Constantly
This would be better if it didn’t crash completely after every few comics scanned.

This use to work and no it won’t work on my itouch!!!!!!!!!! WTF!!!!!!!! Seriously and their support is non existent!!!!! want my money back for this pos!!!!!

New update crashes at start-up!
App is good, but new version crashes on iPhone 4. No testing prior to posting? WTF.

Doesn’t Work
For me, in my phone, The latest version is broken. It just crashes

Needs fixing
The search feature does not work!

Waste of money
this is no comic app

FYI: each and every one of these “problems” could have been solved with one short email from our support guys. Except that last one maybe, but we’ll never know…

36 thoughts on “What happened to “asking for help”?

  1. The users ARE asking for help and ARE reporting bugs.

    They are asking for help and reporting bugs using the mechanism they are given.

    If you don’t want the ratings to effect you, and I can understand that, encourage Google to put in an associated bug reporting mechanism.

    • @Jerry, exactly. The App Store and Android Market mechanism is broken, as they only provide a way to review/rate, without providing a similarly standardized system to contact customer support.

      BTW: I have no problem with the 1-star ratings. We’ve got enough 5-star rating to keep our average high 🙂

  2. I’d suggest users get more and more used to the lack of real support, you know all the “do-not-reply@customerservice”, the automated, non relevant answers, the robotic phone IVRs and so on. This is the triumph of the Customer Relationship Management…

    Please get me right: I do not imply that you cannot provide a real support, I just suggest that big corps teach people to avoid customer support…

    • ventile, yes, that may well be part of what’s causing this.
      However, we are not a big corp. We are a small software company that provides excellent customer support. So the “they probably won’t even reply to my question” attitude is rather frustrating for us 🙂

  3. I wonder if the user who complained that “support is non existent” actually tried to contact support…

    I think what’s happening here is that users don’t see any means to communicate with the company that made the app other than posting a (negative) review. The App Store in a sense removed the company that created an app from the equation. The transaction takes place between the user and the App Store.

    It’s like a customer who purchased a candy bar from a vending machine and it turns out that it’s gone bad. They won’t call the company who made the candy bar, but instead (due to lack of other means of communication) they’ll leave an angry graffiti on the vending machine.

    One thing that would help remedy this problem would be the ability for the company/author of an app to reply to comments/reviews in the App Store.

    As it stands today the angry and unjustified reviews will remain there forever without a response. That again prompts other users to think that “nobody” cares about the app. A frustrating situation.

    Well, changes to the app store commenting system are unlikely to happen anytime soon. Another way to tackle this could be to detect a crash and prompt the user to get in touch with support right away. Not ideal, but a start to keep the communication going.

    • Rico, I agree that the lack of a standardized Support system (next to the review/rating) system would be a BIG help.
      I am thinking of integrating a support request form into our mobile apps as an alternative solution.
      (However, that would not help people for whom the app crashes at start-up)

    • Doug, my post was not meant to reach the actual software users or even to complain.
      Just reporting about a change we are seeing in the software world. Trying to start a conversation about how we, software developers, can solve this.

  4. The iPhone App Alfred had a feedback button built into the app when they first launched. Immediately when I had an annoyance, I submitted the feedback right within the app and within seconds, someone had fired an email back and we had a short back and forth about a usability problem I had regarding their app.

    The problem here and with this post is that you’re expecting the users to go out of their way, find out who the makers of the app are, locate an email, and fire off a support question. If anyone is to blame, its the developers (I, myself, am a dev so I’m not just blaming blindly). If you want people to conversate, make it dead easy. Don’t expect people to go out of their way as only a very very small fraction will ever do so. And as app development makes it harder to communicate, the problem just gets worse. Rather than rant, do what devs do best, build the solution.

    • @Steven, that sounds like a great solution to this problem. I will take a look at that Alfred app. Thanks!

      I agree that for mobile stand-alone apps, we developers cannot expect customers to go out of their way to find the developer’s website and ask for support there.
      However, at Collectorz.com we are only selling mobile add-ons, that complement our Windows and Mac software. So everyone who purchases our mobile apps is already an existing Collectorz.com customer. So they already know us, they already know how to find our website, how to contact us for support, etc… That is why it surprises me that they would take a different route when they have a problem with our mobile app.

      But still, I think the Alfred-solution could work well for us. Will try that.

  5. Agree 100%. There should be some sort of short class on user responsibilities people should be required to pass before they’re allowed to leave reviews in the app store/android market/wherever.

  6. Step 1 add your phone number / email address in a prominent place on any app / software you write.
    Step 2 Make sure you reply!
    The companies/individuals who I have been able to contact have always provided excellent service.

  7. As a software engineer, I understand your plight. As a consumer of mobile apps, I kinda see your point. But your examples bug me.

    The interface for starting an email on my phone is rubbish. It probably isn’t – there’s probably some really easy way, but I generally find myself having to memorize an email, going out to my home screen, in to my email app, choose which account I want to send an email for, type the email in (or possibly paste it if I’ve somehow managed to copy it) and then type my problem.

    Then, there’s the app itself. Why did it crash? Ok, I don’t expect you to have every android brand ever made, but if an update starts crashing on more than one phone, then I’d consider that a failed ship and somehow post the older version. Not sure how many app stores have that facility, but at the very least you could post the older version with a higher version number until you’ve fixed the issue, and rerelease.

    What, you don’t know if your app crashed? I’m sure there’s software out there that can post to a web address whenever an exception is thrown. For the privacy conscious, you can provide an opt-out. Either way, you should know your release was broken before 20 people have downloaded.

    And if someone tells you your support is non-existent, that means “I couldn’t see it at first glance”. Yeah, it sucks as an excuse. But the onus is on you to a) have a faultless app (practically impossible) or b) Make support easy. Like, really easy.

    Bullet proof. Idiot proof. Both impossible, both desirable. Yes, bad companies have made people feel helpless. Also, people know how to give this “feedback” on an app far better than they know how to contact support. But if your app flat-out doesn’t work, and you haven’t worked out a way of reassuring your users, maybe you should look a this overly public criticism as a cry for UI.

    • Matt, true, our apps should never crash. But hey, shit happens. And often these are very rare cases, sometimes device-related, sometime database related, who knows.
      My point was that to actually *fix* problems like that, especially the rare cases, a conversation with the user is *crucial*.

      And yes, of course we get Android app crash reports through the Market, which sometimes helps, but often still fails to help us reproduce and fix the actual crash. For our apps, having the user’s database is key for reproducing problems.

  8. So assuming that you pull any apps that don’t work first time across multiple devices, and your question is purely regarding user attitude, the first question you ask yourself is probably the same thing they ask themselves:

    What is so special about me?

    And of course their answer is: nothing at all. Presuming they don’t know Sqlite from Mongo, and they think their device is the most amazing thing to come off the production line since the Commadore 64, they assume that the fault must lie in the app. They have no other point of reference, and as many people have indicated, there are apps out there with rubbish support as well as apps with awesome support.

    The law of apps: P(app crashing on start) is inversely proportional to P(good support).

    But yes, Google has a UI hiccup. They should hold onto feedback for 24 hours and start a dialogue between user and support. If after 24 hours the user still thinks their feedback is correct, they can continue to post. If, in that time, the developer thinks the feedback is correct (i.e. “Wow ur app is sooooo greeet! I luv you guyz ++++”) then they can post it early without confirmation.

    I know that android is rubbish with exceptions (I have had far too many apps fail on startup) and I’m sure iOS isn’t much better. You just have to make your app super awesome. And if you don’t find that magical library that launches the browser on crash with your support page, please write it and open source it. I’m sure there are millions of app developers that will thank you!

    • @Matt, yep, that’s right. The user doesn’t know his situation may be special and can only assume the app crashes for everyone.
      It would definitely be great to have some way to automatically “catch” the crash exception and open a browser on the support page.

  9. We’re quietly accepting beta partners for Look IO (www.look.io). Our SDK enables live chat support in mobile applications that you can support from any chat client (sort of like olark/liveperson for mobile). However, we actually go beyond chat and allow you to view the screen of your user (w/ their explicit consent) additionally, you can click into the screen of the user and show them what to do.

  10. I work on computational science software and I’m asked for help over email all the time.

    I think it has to do with the user base. They’re not CS people, but they’re motivated to find a solution because they’re excited to see the results.

    • @Scott, 🙂
      But again, I am not complaining, just reporting about an interesting change in customer feedback that I am seeing in the software industry. Next step is of course coming up with a good solution, implementing it, measuring the results, etc…

  11. We expect to be put through endless unnecessary paces by unskilled “technicians” who offer only scripted responses, confusion, and ineptitude. We expect to be told it is our fault. We expect to be told to purchase a newer product, or upgrade for a fee. We expect to have our time wasted and to leave far more enraged than we were when the problem manifested. We don’t ask for help because we now *expect* customer service to lie. Put simply, we expect to be given no solution. So now we start from there.

    • @Richie, thanks for that insight from the customer’s viewpoint.
      So what do you suggest companies do to change this expectation? Especially small companies who are very reachable and *do* offer excellent customer support.

  12. Excellent point about the conversation, love it “no conversation, no solution”.

    All companies are dealing with this – conversations have become public and open. I think it is more unfair for small vendors, but probably necessary for large corporations that invest a lot in “supporting” customers but don’t really care what they have to say. Customers are becoming more savvy, and turning to social media gives them more leverage with many companies, and they are using the lessons learned there – the louder you should you shout the better response. One thing that drives this is the payoff for every user, instead of investing their time in a private system that helps the vendor and may get the customer a resolution, they are getting feedback/camaraderie on their own social network, that even if they don’t get a resolution, or care about the resolution, they have a connection to others over their complaints. Human/herding behavior that drives the very internet really.

    This is such a big trend I happen to be building a company about it – I call it “Reverse CRM – I see that customers will increasingly define issues from their own perspective, and leverage social media. What is important is that it becomes a conversation, not a one sided bitch fest. Without the depth of the customer actually defining what is going on, what they think, and an eventual resolution, companies can’t help.

  13. I realize your question is aimed at engineering, but I believe this mentality is leaking into just about every aspect of everything help, support, or service related. Cost cutting and unreasonable “damage control” poisoning the well. It is simply assumed that the top level deciding and fixing department is a conglomerate of unreachable business suits.

  14. It is called narcissism. Complaining is a way to get attention from other people and being “social”, which is the only true purpose of trying most of the apps. Complaining together is the killer app.

  15. I am a developer myself. However as a user, I usually spend some cash. Then I get poor results with some app. I could spend a bunch of time and try to contact the developer to get this thing resolved. In the past that sometimes get me service. But it also has wasted my time with no real benefit to me.

    Instead I have the option to alert the world that some piece of software is problematic. That is actually quite fulfilling. Even though I still have a broke down app, I helped the rest of the world not get stuck like I am. This also feels like a corrective action since a developer selling really buggy software should be exposed and not be given business by others.

    Yeah. It sounds a bit harsh and maybe even evil on my part. But that’s the honest truth.

    • @Maintenance Man, I understand your reasoning.
      But what if the problem you ran into just happened to be a very specific problem that only you (or at least a very small percentage of users) ran into? I know there is no way for you to know that, but still. With your review you may be “alerting the world” of a problem that isn’t a problem at all for 99% of that world.

      It happened to us, with our barcode scanner app, with a very rare problem that only happened to specific (and exotic) devices and only for very specific kind of barcode. And no, we wouldn’t have found this bug up front even if we would have spent weeks testing with a 10 man team of testers and with all devices available to us.
      It took us a long time to reproduce the problem because we simply couldn’t find the right combination of device and barcode type. But with thousands of users, there are bound to be 2 or 3 users running into even the rarest of problems and guess what: all 3 of them were screaming and yelling in the review sections and no, they were not mentioning what device they were using or which barcode types they were scanning. They were just stating things like “this app sucks, doesn’t work at all”, without any way for us to contact them.

      While a simple conversation with those users would have helped us zoom into the exact problem cases in no time…

  16. Attention span problem. Every user this days want it to work and want it now. No time to call the developer, because their attention will wander off to the new novelty as soon as gratification through using your stuff isn’t achieved.

    Welcome to the mass market.

  17. “They’re addressing other users, asking “Is anyone else having this problem?”
    What’s that about? How is finding other with the same problem going to help you? Why not report the problem to the company directly so that they can actually do something about it? (this one is especially common on public Forums and Facebook).”

    If you find somebody else with the same problem, and that person has solved it, then there is no need to ask the company. I think more times than not, people tend to do this when they believe the problem is through a fault of their own and not the product they are using. I know when I have an issue with something I’m using, the first thing I do is google the error message and see what other people have done (I do this 100% of the time when I get Visual Studio errors). Am I purposely skirting Microsoft support? No. I know that there is a high probability that the problem is something I did wrong and that other people have done it too and there is a solution that doesn’t waste the time of support staff (who could be tending to real issues and not somebody doing something wrong).

    • @Jon, of course, in case of software usage questions, I absolutely love users helping each other.
      But for software crashes or hangs? There is no way someone other than the developer is going to be able to offer any help… Other users can’t fix bugs.

      (yeah, yeah, I know, our software shouldn’t have bugs… but again: shit happens, even after the best of coding practices and the most rigorous of QA)

  18. Being a “customer review” log, I think the sentiment of the comments posted are valid. If the App crashes, you assign a star rating accordingly. Sounds exactly like what one should expect.

    It’s unforgiving out in the wild. It might not be ideal, but that’s the system we have (until support systems are integrated into the store). Even if there was a brilliant direct feedback/support portal & the customer used it to your satisfaction, I believe it’s still appropriate to rate a product based on your experience with it. If it crashes, it’s going to get a lower rating, regardless of how many reps apologised & promised to fix it.

  19. “But for software crashes or hangs? There is no way someone other than the developer is going to be able to offer any help”

    Honestly, I feel this is partly the kind of attitude that turns users off from asking for help. Of course other users can’t fix bugs, but they may well know of workarounds or apps that fulfill a similar function to yours that don’t have the same kind of problem. One user may have read an announcement that another hasn’t that there is already an update imminent that addresses the problem. These are all ways of helping.

  20. If there is a rare bug that is wrecking the experience of 1% of people, then I think that absolutely they should give it a low rating. If it really is just a 1% problem, then you should still get 99% good ratings (although not really since people are more likely to review when there’s an issue, but still). I wouldn’t take it any other way as a consumer. Before I buy something on a site with reviews (like Amazon), I specifically find the worst of all the reviews to read, because those give me the most information on what could go wrong with the thing. I don’t expect all the reviews to be perfect for something, and I don’t slap a rejected stamp on it just because someone out there had a problem, but many times I get much much better consumer information from negative reviews than positive ones. I also disagree with the idea that developers be given some way to moderate the comments and suppress bad review (even if the dev feels they are completely unjustified).

    I’m reminded of this XKCD comic, http://xkcd.com/937/ Obviously a silly example, but one in which the only review that gives useful consumer information is the 1-star. Maybe it was an exotic hardware combo, but I still want to know about it.

    • @Dave, wow….
      That is *exactly* the kind of consumer attitude that has become so apparent the last few years and *exactly* what my blog post is about.
      You see, 10 to 15 years ago, we rarely saw software consumers thinking and acting like that. When there was a bug, users did not immediate jump to “warning other people about it”. They just contacted me and tried to provide me as much info as possible so that I could fix it for them. And rightly so, because these people paid good money for my software, so it was also in their best interest to get the issue fixed. Again, nice, friendly, fruitful, effective, for every party involved.

      But nowadays, it seems like people are completely uninterested in getting the software they paid for to work correctly. What’s that about? Don’t they care about the money they paid anymore? I see it all the time, reviews that say “this app doesn’t work, looks like I lost my money again”. No attempt to recoup that money by getting the app to work, not even a friendly request for a refund.
      (that alone would make me happy already, because at least it’s a start of a conversation. I love refund requests, because it is honest and up front, better than a public complaint behind my back. We always provide refunds immediately, to everyone who asks for them, and *then* try to get some more information about the reasons for the refund. Always a very useful conversation.)

      What is about warning the world that is so important? And why immediately give up on an app at the first sign of a problem? Again, software consumers were not like that 10 years ago.
      And THAT is what my blog post is about, about a trend I am seeing in software consumer attitude. It has changed, and surely it has changed for the worse.

      Having good, friendly and fruitful conversations with my customers is what helped me bring my software to the level that it is at today. Over 15 years, I have been tuning and tweaking my software, adding requested features, modifying the user interface where people struggled, fixing bugs (yes, I admit, my software has bugs sometimes). All of this would have been completely impossible *without having conversations with my users”. The users helped me find bugs, the users told me how they were using my software, about what user interface annoyances they ran it, it was the users who sometime came with briljant out-of-the-box ideas for new functionality. You know, those user conversations are *the* most fun part of running a small software company, the direct contact with your users.

      And exactly *that user conversation part* is slowly going away because of the “App Store Attitude”.

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